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Minnesota's Top Cop: Tobacco Dragonslayer?

Attorney General Skip Humphrey has much at stake in a trial that is set to begin jury selection today.

For all of its money and global muscle, Big Tobacco would rather be in a hundred other places today than in a St. Paul, Minn., courtroom.

Here, the industry will face one of its most combative foes yet in the epic tobacco wars - a man who relishes the role of dragonslayer, and who clearly sees tobacco as the dragon.

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"This is an outlaw industry," says Minnesota's attorney general. "It has to be brought to justice. We're going into this trial on the principle that the coverup has to be exposed, tobacco must pay the full price for its frauds and conspiracies, and the public, especially the youngsters, have to be protected."

Tough talk. The speaker is Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, the son of the late vice president who was the most popular politician in Minnesota history.

Skip Humphrey reveals neither his father's charisma, his charm as an orator, nor, critics say, Hubert's weight as a political figure. What he does have, even the critics concede, is a hot zeal to rein in the tobacco colossus and make it pay for its assaults on the public health.

Humphrey has the credentials. His was one of the earliest voices from America's statehouses demanding a legal attack on tobacco's profitmaking at the expense of public health. He never bought into a $368 billion proposed settlement between tobacco and other states - a buyout that extracted money and other concessions from the industry in exchange for immunity from future lawsuits. (Congress is expected to reject or amend it.)

Inhospitable climate for tobacco

Humphrey will have an advantage if the case does become an open battle between the public and the tobacco power-house: It will be tried in front of a Minnesota jury. This is a state that takes public health seriously and has been a leader and innovator in protecting it. This is the home of the Mayo Clinic and scores of pioneering measures in international medicine.

But as jury selection begins today in a Ramsey County courtroom in the suit brought by Minnesota and Blue Cross insurance, Humphrey may also be considering his political stakes.

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Humphrey wants to be governor of Minnesota. To do it, he'll have to deal in this year's campaigning with two other political heirs in the dynastic in-fighting of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Ted Mondale, a state legislator and son of former Vice President Walter Mondale, also wants to be governor. So does Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County (Minneapolis and suburbs) attorney and son of Orville Freeman, who was once governor and later US agriculture secretary under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. So does Norm Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul, once a Democrat, now reformed as a Republican and the presumptive choice as the GOP nominee this fall.

A big score against tobacco could propel Humphrey into the governor's chair. A standoff could bust him. None of this is exactly coincidental to what's happening in the courtroom this week. The lame-duck governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson (R), originally sniped at Humphrey for orchestrating the lawsuit. He argued that Minnesota should be settling like everybody else. He then asked to be cut in on Humphrey's strategy. Humphrey told him to butt out.

Who's who in the trial

Humphrey is the architect of the state's lawsuit against tobacco, but he's not trying it personally, a fact that creates one more subplot in what may be one of the courtroom wars of the year. The principals include:

Kenneth Fitzpatrick, a judge with a low tolerance for courtroom evasions; Mike Ciresi of a private law firm retained by the state, a power-hitting trial lawyer who has extracted millions of dollars from corporate offenders in internationally prominent cases such as the Bhopal disaster in India and the Dalkon shield; and the heads of America's major tobacco companies.

Humphrey says he would like to see the case tried before a jury, but he's not knocking a settlement if it's tough enough and the public interest is protected. The courtroom sourdoughs, noting that Texas, Mississippi, and Florida have all accepted cash and called off their trials, are betting on a settlement.

In pretrial skirmishing, Judge Fitzpatrick has already looked askance at one industry strategy. When a lawyer for Philip Morris took the apparent position that smoking might actually be saving the state medical costs by causing earlier deaths, the judge appeared astonished. "I am certainly not going to allow the defense to argue there is a benefit from premature death from smoking or argue any health benefit from smoking," Fitzpatrick told the lawyer. "I have difficulty conceiving that any jury in the world would buy that."

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